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Why couldn’t the Clippers score in Game 4?

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One of the greatest offenses in league history looked like anything but.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Four Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If you didn’t make it through the end of Game 4, it’s hard to blame you. The Clippers and the Suns combined to put together one of the worst collective offensive performances in recent memory. This was the lowest-scoring NBA game of the season, and 685 games had more points through three quarters than this one had through four.

The Clippers finished the game with an offensive rating of 84.8, compared to 90.1 for the Suns. For context, the league average during the postseason is 114.4, and the Clippers had been posting an offensive rating of 117.4 during this series. That means L.A. scored 32 points fewer per 100 possessions in this game than would have been expected based on their prior performance in the conference finals. That’s insane.

It was even worse in the fourth quarter, when the two teams combined for seven total made field goals, scoring more points at the foul line than from the field for the period.

We know the Clippers were a historically good offensive team during the regular season, and even through the first two rounds of the playoffs. What went wrong, especially at the end of the game?

A lot. Let’s go through all of it.

Tired legs doomed the Clippers

Much has been made of the Clippers’ schedule over the last month. They have played every other day since Game 5 of the Dallas series on June 2, including eight travel days. They’re down two projected starters in Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka, which has placed a higher minutes load on the remaining players. Paul George has played 130 more minutes than any other player this postseason while serving as the lead ball handler for the Clippers over the last six games.

But the problem for the Clippers in Game 4 was more than just an accumulation of wear and tear — it was all the energy they had to use just to get back into the game after a poor start. The Clippers fell behind 14-2 four minutes into the game, and then spent the rest of the night trying to make up that deficit. They never even tied the Suns after the start, doomed by Phoenix pushing the pace early and building a lead in transition.

“They got off to a good start,” Ty Lue said postgame. “I thought they came out with a great physicality on the defensive end, switched a lot and took us out of our offensive flow and offensive rhythm. And I thought the offense got out in transition and made a couple baskets, kind of got them going. So we didn’t start the game as great as we wanted to.”

Through three quarters, the Clippers were shooting 37.5 percent from the field. That collapsed to 3-of-19, or 15.8 percent, in the fourth. The team was gassed. For a team already trailing 2-1 in a series and down a star, it was too much to ask the Clippers to also dig themselves out of an early hole. They can’t afford to have a poor start in Game 5 if they want to extend this series.

Deandre Ayton dominated the Clippers defensively

Statistically speaking, the Suns are not the best defense the Clippers have faced in this postseason. The Jazz had the league’s best defense during the regular season, allowing four fewer points per 100 possessions than Phoenix, per Cleaning the Glass.

But while Utah was rigid in the way it could defend the Clippers, the Suns are more flexible. They have good defenders at nearly every position instead of just one, and they have been buoyed by the star turn of Ayton in these playoffs. Ayton has been Phoenix’s best player in this series, and he was at his finest in Game 4.

Ayton’s primary weakness is defending on the perimeter, and George said the Clippers tried to get him to commit farther from the basket early on, but their inability to make jump shots allowed Ayton to camp near the basket.

When Ayton was in the paint, he swallowed up L.A.’s scoring chances. The Clippers shot 11-of-24 at the rim (the league average is about 64.1 percent in that range), regularly finding their path blocked by Ayton. The Phoenix center defended every kind of shot: he stood up Ivica Zubac’s post-ups, protected the basket in pick-and-roll, and even stayed in lock step with drives from the perimeter. It was near hopeless trying to finish around him.

“I thought Deandre’s presence, his effort, the rebounding, shot blocking, his communication on defense, switching out on smaller guys and being able to guard them, he was the catalyst tonight on the defensive end,” Monty Williams said about Ayton. “I thought it was an unreal performance from him. Our guys rallied around him.”

The Clippers just missed shots

The Suns prevented the Clippers from getting good looks at the basket, but the shots the Clippers got on the perimeter were looks they could have made and simply didn’t.

L.A. shot 41.1 percent on threes during the regular season and had been canning 39.9 percent during the postseason. There was no precedent for the Clippers making only 5-of-31 (16.1 percent) in a game.

Of the 26 threes that the Clippers missed, 19 of them were categorized as open or wide open by NBA.com, coming off drive and kicks, swings around the perimeter, or bruising screens from Zubac on the perimeter. But it didn’t matter.

It felt like it wasn’t the Clippers’ night early when Luke Kennard missed three 3-pointers in the first quarter. One of them rolled around the rim interminably before falling out, and the other two looked true but wouldn’t go in. The Clippers had a number of looks like that, several of them that seemingly could have broken the dam and shifted momentum.

“Tonight was a tough one,” George said postgame. “We had an opportunity to take the lead for a couple possessions. We just had a hard time putting the basket in the hole. That’s honestly the game. We played great defense. Just had a hard time scoring tonight.”

The team also struggled from the foul line. This was the best free-throw shooting team in league history during the regular season, as the Clippers made 83.9 percent of their free throws. During the playoffs, they’ve made 82.2 percent of their foul shots. And yet, they only made 21-of-32 in Game 4. A few of those were intentional misses, but 21-of-29 still isn’t up to L.A.’s standards, and part of the reason the team lost.

The Clippers will have to improve their overall offensive flow in Game 5; of their 27 field goals, only 13 were assisted on Saturday. But their style of play wasn’t the problem. If two more shots go in, they’re headed back to Phoenix for a best-of-3. Instead, their postseason run could be on its last legs.

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